Does the UW System Need A Business Leader at the Helm?

Should the UW System look for a business leader to be its next president?  John Torinus poses this idea as a means to transform the UW system, arguing that “Business leaders are more inclined to be clear-eyed and hard-nosed about the need for strategic turn-arounds or transformations.”  Full disclosure, I am an employee of the UW system and hence have skin in the game, but Torinus’s premise is faulty.  The let’s run government like a business trope is built on an incomplete understanding of both the public and private sectors.

First, the assumption that private sector is more effective and efficient by virtue of being the private sector is plain wrong.  Private businesses fail all the time.  While the profit-motive gives private business a clear goal, i.e. maximizing profit, having a clear goal is no guarantee of success.  I am not reflexively opposed to a business leader running the UW system, but I do reject the premise that the system can only be transformed by a business leader.  A poorly matched leader will hurt the system regardless of where they come from.

Second, public sector shareholders are an open group (everyone owns a share), as opposed to the closed group of shareholders in a private corporation.  As such, the leader of the UW system must take into account equity, transparency, and minority rights in ways that a private business leader does not.  A university system will do things that lack clear economic rationale as a result of being a public entity.  This is not a weakness, but a key attribute of being an organization serving the public at-large.

Third, the UW system (and any public organization) lacks the clear market signals of a private corporation.  Failure is not always obvious because the stream of public and customer funding will continue (to some degree) in both good and bad times.  Leadership in a system without clear market signals requires a very different skillset than leadership over a private corporation.  To say nothing of the unique dual task of managing over a complicated bureaucracy populated with employees enjoying strong job protections, while at the same time being managed by an unpredictable politics.

Fourth, and this is the public management professor in me, but it drives me nuts that the very specific and well-developed field of public administration is ignored in these calls for running the UW system like a business.  Running a public organization is a very specific challenge that requires a very specific skillset.  We have assets throughout the system who are nationally-known experts on new public management, public governance, public budgeting, performance measurements, social equity, and so much more that is directly relevant to the business of running the UW system.  Assuming a business leader is more apt to be clear-eyed about what is needed is at odds with so much work being done right here in the UW system!

To be clear, I do not think picking a private sector leader to lead the UW system is an inherently bad idea any more than I think it is a good idea.  But I do know that assuming positive reform is only possible with a business leader is wrong.  My hope is that the next leader of our system is a good fit regardless of where they come from, and that the talent and expertise in our system is utilized as the asset it is.

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